Sixty years ago today, millions of people celebrated the end of an old year before making their New Year’s resolutions.
Abe Saperstein, however, didn’t have much to celebrate since he was tasked with making a New Year’s dissolution.
Saperstein’s brainchild – the innovative American Basketball League – folded on December 31, 1962, taking with it the 3-point shot, wider lane and a preview of what was ultimately to come for college and pro basketball. The ABL didn’t even make it through two complete seasons, but still left its mark.
Officially formed on April 21, 1960, the ABL tried to challenge the National Basketball Association with a game that gave smaller shooting specialists the chance to make an impact. Chicago (Majors), Cleveland (Pipers), Kansas City (Steers), Los Angeles (Jets), San Francisco (Saints), and Washington D.C. (Tapers) were tapped as the flagship franchises. Honolulu (Hawaii Chiefs) and Pittsburgh (Rens) were added later to give the ABL eight teams to start.
“We can make this the outstanding league in the country,” Saperstein told the Kansas City Times. “These cities were carefully chosen and they make the league nationwide from one coast to the other.”
Saperstein was hardly a roundball novice; he owned both the world-famous Harlem Globetrotters (featuring Wilt Chamberlain), and was part owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors. Since he was challenging the NBA with the ABL, he opted to sell his stake in the Warriors.
Before spearheading a rivalry with the established league, though, he had hoped to be awarded primary ownership of a Los Angeles-based NBA team. When that didn’t happen, he decided he’d take matters into his own hands with the ABL.
The league began play in 1961-62 with eight rule changes. The most significant were a 3-point shot from beyond a 25-foot arc and the free throw lane enlarged from 12 to 18 feet.
There was also a 30-second shot clock (six seconds more than the NBA).
One major innovation reportedly voted down was dividing the game into three, 20-minute periods.
As is the case with many startups, the first season featured several stumbling blocks.
The Jets didn’t even make it through their schedule, folding on January 18, 1962. Since the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers had relocated to L.A., the first year ABL club in the City of Angels was unable to compete for fans. The Tapers, also suffering from poor attendance, moved to New York during the inaugural season and eventually wound up in Philadelphia.
And while the Chiefs played before solid home crowds, travel expenses incurred by the other seven teams made it clear it wasn’t feasible to keep a team in Honolulu. (They would set up shop in Long Beach, California, to start the 1962-63 season).
The Pipers (owned by George Steinbrenner) defeated the Steers three games to two to win the 1961-62 league title. They were led by John McLendon, the first African-American coach of a major professional basketball team.
The second season featured just six teams: the Chicago Majors, Kansas City Steers, Long Beach Chiefs, Oakland Oaks, Philadelphia Tapers and Pittsburgh Rens. (Cleveland dropped out of the ABL in hopes of joining the NBA, while San Francisco shifted operations to Oakland due to the relocation of the NBA Warriors to the Golden City).
Former Globetrotter Ermer Robinson, who served as general manager of the Majors in the ABL’s first year, became the league’s second African-American coach in 1962 when he was put in charge of the Oaks.
Less than halfway into the campaign the teams were running out of money and, in most cases, attendance was poor. That prompted Saperstein to pull the plug on the ABL on the final day of 1962 and declare K.C. champion with a 22-9 record.
“Not a single club was operating in the black,” Saperstein told the Associated Press. “About 100 players are involved and they can now be considered free agents. We hope to help them get employment. A great many should be picked up by the National Basketball Association.”
Steers owner Ken Krueger wanted to continue, telling AP that Oakland, Long Beach and possibly Pittsburgh wanted to play on.
“I have suggested that Johnny Dee, our present coach, be appointed commissioner under any such realignment and everyone seems to think he would be a good one.” Krueger said. “We might be able to move the Philadelphia franchise to another city.”
Pittsburgh owner Paul Cohen, however, set his sights higher and wanted to jump to the NBA.
“I’m doing it on my own,” he said. “I think Pittsburgh is a good basketball city. If the type of talent the NBA employs played there, I’m sure the team would be a success. The city has a wonderful arena and interested fans.
“It’s a shame the ABL folded. I’m heartsick for the kids. I know I lost a fortune the past two years.”
During its brief existence the ABL showcased notable players such as Connie Hawkins and Bill Bridges. Jerry Lucas was under contract with Cleveland, but never played a game in the league.
In 1964 the NBA took a cue from the ABL and widened its lane to 16 feet. The 3-point shot, however, didn’t reappear until the American Basketball Association revived it in 1967. The NBA finally adopted it in 1979.
So, allow me to propose a toast to the American Basketball League. It didn’t last long, but its contributions to roundball live on.